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Uzbekistan19 April 2005

Young independent journalist faces up to 20 years in prison

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(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders today condemned the arrest of Sabirjon Yakubov (picture), a 22-year-old journalist with the independent weekly Hurriyat ("Freedom"), on 11 April in Tashkent on charges of "infringing the constitutional order" and belonging to an "extremist" religious organization.

"We deplore the arbitrary nature of this arrest of a young independent journalist who was just doing his job and who is being accused without any evidence of belonging to an extremist group," Reporters Without Borders said. "It will be an outrage if he gets a long prison sentence just for reporting something that displeases the Uzbek authorities."

According to the law, he faces a possible sentence of between three and 15 years in prison but, as he was arrested in the company of other persons, the sentence could rise to as much as 20 years in prison, said Ruslan Sharipov, a former dissident journalist now living in exile in the United States.

Charged under article 159 of the criminal code, Yakubov is currently being held in an interior ministry detention centre in Tashkent but should be transferred to Tashkent prison on 21 April at the latest.

His colleagues say the real reason for his arrest was an article he wrote on 16 March about the implication of senior Ukrainian officials in the 2000 murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze and how this was a contributing factor in Ukraine’s "orange revolution" at the end of last year. The article also accused the United States of reining in its human rights monitoring in Uzbekistan after being able to install an air base in the south of the country in 2001 on President Islam Karimov’s invitation.

Staff at Hurriyat voiced surprise at his arrest, describing the young graduate of Tashkent university’s journalism school as being especially moderate in his approach to Muslim philosophy, in which he has specialized.

"It is astonishing that a journalist who has written dozens of articles about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism should be accused of belonging to an extremist religious group," one of his colleagues, Alimar Donanayev, told Reporters Without Borders. "If he does get a long prison sentence, all the journalists will rise up in protest against this arbitrary arrest and will demonstrate," he added.

Born in Margilan (in the Ferghana region), Yakubov has written for Hurriyat since 2001. When he was a student, his teachers recommended him to President Karimov for a scholarship.

Article 159 of the criminal code is often used by the authorities as a way to silence dissent. Yakubov’s arrest recalls that of Hurriyat contributor Gayrat Mehliboyev, who was arrested in 2003 and was sentenced to seven years in prison for "violation of the constitutional order" and "participation in an extremist religious organization."

The website quoted a police source on 15 April as saying there is a list of journalists who are under government surveillance. The interior ministry issued an immediate denial.

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